Caste in India: diminishing returns to identity politics

Caste in India: diminishing returns to identity politics

Caste has cast its shadow once again over Indian politics. Over the past few weeks, Parliament has witnessed uproarious scenes on whether to include caste in the census that has just got under way. Opinion is split among political leaders, social activists and the public. But far from being ultimately divisive, this debate is a perfect demonstration of how India’s vibrant democracy and growing economy is making caste less and less important.

For a start, counting castes is a practical absurdity. When the British tried it as part of the first census in 1881, they identified fewer than 2,000 subcastes, and found that 58% of these groups had a population of fewer than 1,000. They omitted it from the 1931 census as they couldn’t standardize the categories in view of enormous local variations.

Even Indians have problems defining caste. When a commission was set up in the 1980s to identify socially and economically backward classes, it identified more than 4,000 “other backward castes". Including all the subcastes among the upper castes, there might be around 10,000 castes today—or more.

But does any of this really matter? As time goes on, economic growth is eroding strong caste distinctions. Indians who want to escape restrictive social customs in their villages can find economic opportunities and upward mobility in cities. Urbanization has also provided an opportunity to remain anonymous in a sea of humanity, in contrast to small towns or villages where it was easy for residents to know each other’s ancestry and caste.

Society is also becoming more tolerant. A century ago, caste-based discrimination prevailed in social and religious practices, marriage customs and eating habits. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who chaired the committee that drafted the Indian Constitution, was forbidden to touch water pots at his school because he was from a lower caste. Barely 40 years ago in New Delhi, it was not uncommon to find Brahmin teachers refusing to eat or drink if they were served by lower castes. Today, students and teachers at government schools participate equally in midday meals, and schools that are found to discriminate on the grounds of caste are castigated.

Thus, the only people who would advocate a caste census would be the people who personally benefit from it: namely, politicians who depend on identity politics to win votes. They hail from mostly smaller parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar or the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Marginalized from the halls of power, they think a caste census could facilitate the flow of more money and affirmative action programmes to their political constituencies.

This trend started in the late 1980s, when the Congress party’s grip on power eroded. Smaller parties emerged to seize the political opportunity and sought to mobilize voters based on their regional, religious or caste identities. But to win support, they had to give those groups special benefits. Citizens quickly realized they needed to be classified as certain castes to obtain certain benefits. In the 1990s, so many groups in Andhra Pradesh demanded to be recognized as “backward" that the total number was a figure four times larger than the official population of the state.

The bigger problem is that playing identity politics has a diminishing marginal return. Indians are generally comfortable with multiple identities— ethnic, linguistic, regional and religious, as well as caste. Hardly any narrow homogeneous identity dominates any specific electoral constituency or region.

That’s why in a country where at least 80% of the population professes to be Hindu, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) attempt to mobilize support based on that identity did not assure it electoral success. UP chief minister Mayawati figured this out in 2007, when she expanded the base of her Bahujan Samaj Party to include all castes, rather than just untouchables. The strategy propelled the party to power by itself for the first time ever in India’s most populous state.

Thus, it’s little surprise that big political parties, the Congress and the BJP, have mixed views of the calls for a caste census. Since these parties are national in scope, they are naturally more cautious.

They also understand the limits of Indian politics. Given the diversity of India’s population, a candidate has to form political coalitions that cut across caste, religious and ethnic identities to have any chance of winning. This is especially true for state- or national-level legislative elections—and invariably necessitates a degree of compromise.

More practically, there is a limit to political patronage that can be distributed. The public sector employs barely 5% of the at least 450 million people in the labour force. Even if all jobs were reserved for the lowest and backward castes, it would barely make a dent on the socioeconomic status of these communities.

India’s politicians face a clear choice: They can side with the old social order and try to secure their own political future through patronage or they can discard it, like the rest of the country is doing. Indians are on the move and their many identities are becoming optional. It is the politicians who are in danger of being left behind, exposing the true nature of their own identities.


Edited excerpts. Comments are welcome at